Monday, December 22, 2008

Würzburg, Part II— Some Notable Figures

Shortly after St. Burchard/Burkard arrived in 741, Karlmann, the Frankish mayor of the palace, bequeathed a large amount of land to the diocese. The bishops dutifully continued to push for Christianizing Saxony. The nobles, in turn, showered them with real estate and free residence at the Marienburg fortress over the city.

By the early 750’s Würzburg’s bishops were well on their way to wielding great secular power in their own right! Indeed they would be Fürst-bischof or “Prince-bishop” over a growing swatch of land until the secularization of 1803. Through the Middle Ages and Renaissance numerous bishops saw great players in the arts and humanities in their town— Albertus Magnus, O.P., the philosopher; Mathias Grünenwald, the painter; etc. For centuries the Würzburg bishopric was a state of the Franconian Circle, an Imperial Circle of the Holy Roman Empire. The University was founded in 1402— one of the oldest in German speaking lands. Unfortunately it initially floundered because of financial and cultural instability. (Those humanists!) Johannes Trithemius, abbot of a local monastery, wrote in 1506 that the failure was due to "bathing, love, brawling, gambling, inebriation, squabbling and general pandemonium [which was] ...'greatly impeding the academic achievement in Würzburg.'" And who said collegiate rowdiness came with the sexual revolution of the 1960's? Apparently good hygiene is the real culprit. Oh, and in 1423 a student's assistant fatally stabbed the first Chancellor Johann Zantfurt.

Perhaps Würzburg’s most famous residents/prelates were the Schönborn family (as in Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, present Archbishop of Vienna). In the 17th and 18th centuries Würzburg had three Schönborn bishops. Most notably two brothers/bishops, Johann Philipp Franz and Friedrich Karl von Schönborn, oversaw the construction of the indulgent Würzburg Residenz between 1720 and 1744. Architects Johann Lukas von Hildebrandt and Maximilian von Welsch designed this new palace for the bishops. Balthasar Neumann created the famous Baroque staircase. Its Hofkirche and stairwell frescoes (the largest in the world) by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo shine as some of the most opulent (nearly grotesque!) examples of rococo one can find! Quite appropriately this structure sits on the UNESCO World Heritage Site roster.

18th Century bishop Adam Friedrich von Seinsheim (episcop. 1755-1779) oversaw major redesign of the Residenz palace gardens— as well as work on landscaping at his suffragan see and subsidiary residence at Bamberg to the east. Von Seinsheim was from an old noble family that, as the name suggests, traced its roots to nearby market town of Seinsheim (my family’s home) with one Erkinger who died in 917. Of course, as these things go, Adam Friedrich’s mother was a Schönborn. This made the Schönborn bishops his uncles.

The Von Seinsheim family itself has died out in 1917 but it persists in one branch— the House of Schwarzenberg. The Schwarzenberg’s had significant fiefdoms in Bohemia and owned a number of palaces, notably the Palais Schwarzenberg in Vienna. Construction on this marvelous baroque structure began in 1697 and it is now a hotel— owned by the family, of course!

More recently, and more secularly, Wilhelm Röntgen, discovered X-rays at the University of Würzburg in 1895.

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